Christmas, for most Orthodox Christians, is a time of fasting, prayer, worship, sacraments, spiritual renewal, and philanthropy. It is a more religious celebration that is not as commercial as in some cultures. It is a time where we also have many traditions that help make it the beautiful holiday it is.
#1 Fasting before Christmas is harder than fasting for Lent
All those Christmas cookies really do you in on the days leading up to Christmas, also why does everything Christmas have to be made with MILK? Also fair warning—whilst eating Greek kourambiedes do not inhale because you WILL choke on the powdered sugar, nothing like a little danger in a cookie I suppose.
#2 If your name is Chris/Christina you feel a little petty for having your namesday be on Christmas day
Yes, you get to celebrate being named after Christ but unfortunately the presents are usually grouped together, nothing like a 2 for 1 deal, am I right?
#3 You get to watch your friends exchange gifts on December 25th but you have to wait until January 7th.
Some jurisdictions are still on the Old ‘Julian’ Calendar and have to wait an extra 13 days for Christmas to happen… patience is a virtue!
#4 Part of decorating the Christmas tree (Badnjak) includes burning it in on Christmas Eve and then baking it into bread.
Look up this cool Serbian Tradition! Just don’t stand too close to the fire because you might lose an eyebrow or two.
#5 You kind of know where the 12 days of Christmas really comes from.
It’s the amount of days between His birth and Epiphany! A lot of people even keep their decorations up until then. Why do you need 11 pipers piping for that?
#6 You’re really confused about who Santa really is.
Is he St. Nicholas of Myra? Is he St. Basil? And when are you going to exchange gifts?Greek Orthodox Christians in Greece traditionally exchange presents on New Year’s Day, the feast day of St. Basil the Great
#7 Christmas Eve ham? Try a 12-part vegetarian extravaganza including perogies, cabbage rolls, beets, borscht, and potatoes that symbolize the 12 Apostles.
This particular tradition is called Sochevnik in Russian. Good thing we’ve been fasting for so long because that dinner sounds delicious.
#8 Your family is a Christmas Eve church family or a Christmas Day one, either way you celebrate the Nativity in a prayerful way and with communion of course!
A picture from the church of the nativity. According to Holy Tradition, that spot is where the star indicated the place of Christ’s birth!
#9 Your Christmas music has been playing on repeat since November.
“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” –Elf
The hymns of the church for the Nativity are filled with so much beauty and joy! My church has had the tradition where our youth group would go and sing carols to sick and elderly parishioners, and the joy they experienced when we would come sing makes your entire week .
#10 You’re genuinely excited for the coming of the Christ. You have been praying, and you keep the true meaning of Christmas, the Nativity of our Savior, close to your heart.
He came to save us! Let us rejoice!
“‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” -Matthew 1:21-23
Ultimately Christmas is a time for families and friends to get together. There is so much beauty that we all share in our ‘traditions’ that everyone celebrates Christmas in their own special way. Orthodoxy, being a part of history for centuries, has molded some beautiful festivities that bring us together because of our mutual love for Christ.
I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.
Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal: it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabkeor learning the Virginia reel, eating borschtor roasting a lamb, singingcolind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.
Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!
St. John (commemorated December 4) is most commonly known as one of the champions of Orthodoxy in the iconoclasm controversy of the ninth century. While serving as an official for the Muslim caliph in Damascus, John famously wrote three treatises in defense of the icons in response to Emperor Leo III’s decree banning images in the churches of Constantinople. Angered, Emperor Leo sent a letter addressed to himself forged in the handwriting of John to the caliph in Damascus which claimed that Damascus was ripe for the conquering. Though John proclaimed in innocence before the caliph, he was sentenced to having his right hand cut off as punishment for supposedly writing the letter. His hand was hung in the courtyard, but John begged for it to be returned.
That night, he kept vigil before the icon of the Theotokos, begging her to restore his mutilated hand. She granted his prayer, healing his hand and amazing the caliph. In gratitude, St. John placed a silver hand on her icon–an icon that became known as the “Icon of Three Hands” (which now lives on Mt. Athos…read her whole story here).
Eventually, St. John became a monk and a priest at St. Savvas monastery, and it was there that he composed his great body of theological works. Of all of these, perhaps the most notable is tome The Fount of Knowledge which includes The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, the first known comprehensive summary of the dogmatic tradition of the Orthodox Church. What does that mean? Well, basically, St. John compiles, organizes, and explains 800 years of Christian theology, everything from the Trinity to the Creation, from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, not to mention also chapters on circumcision, anger, virginity, images, faith, sacraments, fear, pleasures, the Antichrist, angels, and hymns, to name a few.
As if defeating iconoclasm and explaining all of Orthodox theology weren’t enough, St. John also:
compiled a chronicle of every conceivable heresy of his day (part of The Fount of Knowledge) and a number of longer treatises refuting them
contributed to the form and content of the Octoechos, the book of the eight tone cycle in Byzantine music
If you interested in getting to know St. John better or learning more about iconography in our Tradition, I suggest the Three Treatises on Divine Images. It’s a quick read (really, the first of the three is the best and could be read in one or two sittings) that would be great for a chapter discussion or two.
We do not change the boundaries marked out by our Fathers. We keep the Tradition we have received. If we begin to lay down the Law of the Church even in the smallest things, the whole edifice will fall to the ground in no short time.
Whenever I am asked that common question of the season, I think of plenty of family traditions and it is difficult to pick a favorite. Every year, on the weekend after Thanksgiving, my family and I go to pick out our Christmas tree. My sister and I decorate the tree with ornaments from as far back as our mom’s first grade art project. On Christmas Eve, my dad’s side of the family goes to my grandmother’s house to exchange presents before we all head over to Vesperal Liturgy together. On Christmas Day, both my mom and dad’s sides of the family come over to our house for dinner and a gift exchange. There are a lot of traditions to choose from.
As I analyze the question, “What is your favorite holiday tradition?” I feel quite foolish for coming up with a list of traditions that have very little to do with what Christmas is all about. There is no doubt that the American society has built Christmas on consumerism and ‘the season of giving.’ The American lifestyle has funneled our mentality to focus on shopping, Christmas music, and snow. But as an Orthodox Christian I ask myself,
What if the malls were closed before Christmas? What if the Christmas radio station decided to not play Christmas music this year? What if we didn’t have a white Christmas? Isn’t there something more?
Indeed there is. Recently, I learned about the ultimate Christmas Tradition, which is the genealogy of Christ from Matthew 1:1-17. What does that have to do with anything? Glad you asked. Christmas, despite what our society believes, is solely based on one thing: God became man. Jesus Christ was born into forty-two generations of sin. He bridged together the Old and New Testaments and invited both Jews and Gentiles to partake in His Father’s Kingdom. He was given life so that He could give us life.
For the average American college student like myself, that is a lot to try to understand. So I broke it down like this:
In regards to Christmas, there is “tradition” and there is “Tradition.” I have been so used to practicing all the “traditions” like decorating the tree or hanging up stockings that I have almost completely neglected the true “Tradition.” The way that I see things, there are two ways to approach the Christmas season. I can treat it like a piece of dark chocolate, or I can treat it like a candy cane.
Almost everybody likes Hershey’s dark chocolate Kisses simply because they taste really good. The bad thing about Hersey’s, though, is that it does not last long. Similarly, the “traditions” are fun and make you feel good, but there is not much depth or longevity to them. On the other hand, candy canes have a stronger taste to them and it takes a while to eat them. You can take your time to eat a candy cane, or you can chew through it quickly without taking time to fully enjoy it. Like candy canes, the “Tradition” has a strong initial impression that takes more time to understand and get used to.
Dark chocolate and candy canes both taste good and there is nothing wrong with them. At least for 20-year-old college student me, I can get caught up in the dark chocolate traditions of shopping, decorating, and eating, and forget about the true meaning of Christmas. I need to look beyond the “traditions” and find the “Tradition.”
Like eating a candy cane, which is decorated with the white of purity indicating the Virgin birth, the red of Christ’s passion and Blood, and shaped in the form of the Good Shepherd’s staff, I need to be willing to take my time and observe the true Tradition, my favorite Tradition, which is the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Anthony Jonas. Anthony is a junior in the Human Development program at Hellenic College, and a former member of the Student Advisory Board. Over the past year, he has served as the Student Administrative Intern for OCF.